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Thread: There is no good music - only good performances

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    Senior Member Xaltotun's Avatar
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    Default There is no good music - only good performances

    When I started to listen to classical music a couple of months ago, I thought that it would take me ages to even tell the differences between different recordings of a same piece. I thought that it would be the piece of music, not the recorded version, that really mattered.

    I think I was wrong.

    Immediately when hearing different versions of the same musical pieces, I was not only able to tell the difference: the version was what made or broke the piece for me. The same musical piece could sound divine or completely flat, not leaving any impression on me., depending on the recording.

    This prompted me to think up the topic title: "there is no good music, only good performances". What I mean here with "music" is the notes on the paper - the "recipe" of the piece. And "performance" means the actual act when the piece is played, whether by instruments, a CD player or even a computer program that simulates the sounds. To continue the culinary analogy, the actual hot food on a plate before you.

    Granted, it's an exaggeration and a half-truth of sorts, deliberately made so to provoke discussion. But I really think that it's the performance that makes or breaks a piece. It's certain that a lousy performance can totally trash the best of compositions. But can a superb performance salvage a lesser composition? Perhaps, to some extent, especially if the performers/conductor dare(s) to add some touches of their/his own. But even then - if the best performance on Earth cannot raise a lousy composition to seventh heaven, so to speak - I do think that it ultimately comes to to the performance. At the very least, I think that we should acknowledge that the performance is a major ingredient in music. It's NOT all about the composition.

    How many threads in this forum describe how a person wasn't interested in a particular piece of music until he heard a specific performance? Quite many, I think. This again shows the power of the performance. It can lead you to a composer or a piece you have neglected. It can open your mind to the actual music, the actual composition, the Platonic "idea" of the piece - a piece whose "idea" you couldn't get or wasn't interested in until the "reality", the "incarnation" of the piece was strong enough.

    But even in the culinary analogy of recipes and actual food, some recipes are more highly regarded than others. A master chef can probably make some wonderful fish & chips, but it cannot compare to the smoked wild salmon made by him or some other master chef. I wholeheartedly agree: when given superior performances (not only in technical ability but especially the ability to interpret the music in a meaningful way), some pieces most certainly seem to outshine others. And then, but only then, there is "good music", in theoretical sense.

    Perhaps what I'm saying is that "reality", i.e. the performance, that affects our senses, is the gateway that takes us to the "idea", the actual music. We cannot appreciate the "idea" until the "reality" is strong enough. Or, heck, at least I cannot. And in a way, if you are able to imagine the great qualities of a particular piece of music that you just heard played quite badly ("imagine what this would sound like if..."), you might be unable to communicate these ideas to your friends who cannot tap straight into your head. When we're discussing art that we have witnessed, we have to have the common ground in the actual performance. You really cannot blame someone for not seeing the greatness in some genoius composition if he's only heard a single, very spiritlessly played performance.

    Another way to think is that there is no "idea", there is only "reality". There is a school of thought in film theory that I highly endorse called formalism. It means that we should search the meanings and true value of a film in the reality of the film itself, the "form" of the film (how is it shot, composed, lighted, acted, set etc) , as opposed to the "idea" of the film (the ideas and meanings of the film not inherent its form). According to this school of thought, a film about the most banal subject on Earth, that is exceedingly well made, is more interesting than a film about a very complex and interesting subject, but that is made with banal means, and I very much agree. It makes sense to me to apply this thinking to other arts as well, and as I wrote, my experiences with classical music point to a similar direction.

    There's one more thing I'd like to talk about: the performance, according to my definition in the beginning of this post, takes into account ALL possible things that affect the soundwaves before they reach our ears. Thus, to experience a good live performance, you need good musicians, good conductor, AND good acoustics in the hall, good seat position and some luck in that no one drops a violin or anything like that. To experience a good non-live performance, you need a good recording, AND a good stereo system, good room acoustics, an appropriate level of volume, and who knows what else. These are all part of the "performance", or rather, the act of hearing and experiencing. At least I'm certain that I couldn't appreciate a good composition when heard from lousy speakers, recorded badly, or played too silently (or too loud for that matter). Or even, when I'm hungry or in a bad mood!

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    There are both. There is good and bad in all genres of music. And everything in between, of course. An outstanding performance of a mediocre piece of music can make it more enjoyable and even make it seem better than it is (eg Svetlanov conducting Rimsky-Korsakov's Antar Symphony, a pretty weak piece of music brought to life by a passionate and committed performance). On the other hand, there are few masterpieces that will withstand the onslaught of a terrible performance. Luckily, few of these are recorded or released.

    Your chef's anaology is useful. Yes, a great chef can make a truly memorable plate of fish and chips with fairly basic ingredients (my partner's a chef - I know!). However, no matter how fine the ingredients, a bad cook will not be able to create a fine dish with no skill or talent.

    I don't agree with your last paragraph. There are some classic performances of classical music dating back 50-80 years which have terrible sound. However, a truly great performance will shine through and transcend the shallow sound and crackles that accompany it. It's a bit like watching a really good film from the 1930s or 40s (for example). If the film and the acting is first class, you soon forget you are watching a crackly old black-and-white movie.

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    Senior Member Xaltotun's Avatar
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    Interesting analogy to old films regarding my last paragraph, Delicious Manager; I'll have to give it some thought. It's true that I do appreciate old films, even as old as from the 10's, and I don't even notice the technical limitations if the film is good. But: I wouldn't enjoy them from a small screen. That would hamper their emotional power. It seems that some aspects of technology (and the "performance") are more important than others.

    I have listened to some old recordings of classical music, and at this point I cannot get over the poor sound quality. Perhaps I'll have to train myself more - but there is a possibility that it'll be like the small screen size, something that I cannot overcome. Let's see.

    One or the most eye-opening experiences in my life, regarding music, was the following: I had been invited by a friend to a happening in a hi-fi shop where they were comparing different stereo systems. They played the same recording with different systems and tried to hear (or learn how to hear) the differences. I was expecting to hear no differences whatsoever - but I did hear them, and boy, were there plenty. When they played the record on the best system (it was not even a style of music that I liked), the piece sort of transformed to heavenly music. That was incredible - and totally unexpected.

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    It's true that to truly enjoy and get inside music one needs a good hi-fi system. I was just trying to make the point that good sound shouldn't be EVERYTHING. Particularly I was saying that one shouldn't discount wonderful recorded performances from the past simply because they didn't have the technology at the time to capture the sound as accurately as they do now.

    I play my music through an old pair of very fine speakers which are more than 20 years old. When the foam surrounds around the cones disintegrated earlier in the year, I thought I'd look at the possibility of treating myself to a new pair. I was staggered at the price I would have to pay to find modern speakers that would even get near the performance of my 240 ($350) for the pair speakers from 1986. I would have had to spend close to 5,000 (7,500) to get close. My old speakers have 15" bass units, which allows then to reproduce the bass clearly and richly without distortion or booming. I'm not sure one can even GET 15" units in domestic speakers now. I elected to get my cones repaired instead and now for a tiny fraction of the cost of buying replacements. My old speakers are now pumping-out the sound better than ever.

    So, I realise the benefits (even the 'needs') of good sound (especially as I work in the music profession).

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    I'm afraid to say that I disagree with the suggestion that "There is no good music - only good performances".

    I can't believe there are many people who are keen on classical music who consider that the actual performance of a piece is irrelevant provided only all the notes are trotted out properly. Nor can I imagine there are many people who reckon that a lousy piece of music can be transformed into something they may like simply by a spectacular performance of it.

    It would seem reasonably clear - to me at least - that the primary consideration is whether the music itself is of interest to the listener. If it is then provided the actual performance is not too bad it should remain enjoyable. Only a bad performance would spoil it completely, and this is possibly more likely at a concert than on a recording. By the same token a better performance of the piece in question should be even more appealing. This is so obvious that it hardly seems worth discussing.

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    Senior Member Argus's Avatar
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    The original post is about a thousand words too long. It should read - 'There is no good music'.

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    Senior Member StlukesguildOhio's Avatar
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    And "There is no bad music?" Not on to that shtick again.

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    One thing first... you're Finnish? Me too, although I'm 1st generation American. Hooray for Finns!

    Now...

    AVOID NAXOS!

    Sometimes they have good recordings, depends on the composer actually, not the players (the get better players for more popular composers). Sometimes, so bad I wish I didn't spend that $8.
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    If you like to listen to and share music, join me at plug.dj's official classical room!

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    Senior Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    The original poster made some good points. An excellent example today, and that which have been going on for the last few decades of music performance, is the historically informed performance (HIP) practice of early music. Many folks here would agree that HIP have really opened up their ears, and previously perceived as "boring" music of say, the Baroque, have been given the standard of performance and interpretation they deserve. So bottom line is yes, appropriate interpretation and performance practice make a huge difference to a significant portion of the repertoire that many of us listen to. Listening to a Handel opera performed using the wrong instruments, performed at inappropriate tempi, wrong pitch, wrong voices etc. degenerate a great work into a boring one.

    And yes, a good high-fidelity sound system does bring you closer to the music. Period.

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    Senior Member Sid James's Avatar
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    I disagree with the premise (in the title) of this thread. I think that part of developing one's perception is to learn to develop an appreciation for a variety of interpretations across the whole spectrum of classical music. I have a number of cd's that upon first hearing I didn't exactly love, but upon repeated listening, I began to understand kind of why the performer/s chose to interpret the piece in a particular way. You read things around here, on other classical music boards, and even in reviews that are basically a bunch of bullsh*t. Even in the one of the more reputable guides on classical recordings, I read a comment about Carter's music - that it's like barbed wire. What cr*p. Or on classicstoday.com (a site whose reviewer's opinions I take with a HUGE grain of salt) that Rattle's EMI recording of the Messiaen Turangalila Symphony was not intense enough.

    I think that people should try to get out of their comfort zones and really relish what they are listening to, appreciate the difference of every unique interpretation. That's why we have different interpretations right (?) - because every performer has an individual "take" on a piece of music. I don't think that there is any right or wrong, black or white in classical music, it's all about varying shades of grey. Some may like a more intense reading of that Messiaen piece, others might prefer Rattle's more lyrical and breezy reading, and (hopefully?) many people can enjoy both. It's all about flexibility, not about getting the "right" performance. I sometimes read of people buying 20 different versions of the same piece to get the "definitive" interpretation. Well, here's news for them - NOTHING IS DEFINITIVE! It's all based on personal preference and judgement. I find it a waste of time to look around for the "perfect" performance. I'd rather engage actively with the work itself, whatever the style or content of the performance. I'm interested in the structure and content of the music, why it is the way it is, the composer's life, etc. I'd rather get down to the nitty gritty and bare bones of what I'm listening to rather than go off on tangents arguing about irrelevant subtleties.

    BTW, I think Naxos are a very good label, they have made world premiere recordings of many interesting pieces and composers, and yes, some of their recordings have also won coveted awards like the French Diapason D'Or...
    Contrasts and Connections in Music

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    Senior Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Andre View Post
    I disagree with the premise (in the title) of this thread. I think that part of developing one's perception is to learn to develop an appreciation for a variety of interpretations across the whole spectrum of classical music. I have a number of cd's that upon first hearing I didn't exactly love, but upon repeated listening, I began to understand kind of why the performer/s chose to interpret the piece in a particular way. You read things around here, on other classical music boards, and even in reviews that are basically a bunch of bullsh*t. Even in the one of the more reputable guides on classical recordings, I read a comment about Carter's music - that it's like barbed wire. What cr*p. Or on classicstoday.com (a site whose reviewer's opinions I take with a HUGE grain of salt) that Rattle's EMI recording of the Messiaen Turangalila Symphony was not intense enough.

    I think that people should try to get out of their comfort zones and really relish what they are listening to, appreciate the difference of every unique interpretation. That's why we have different interpretations right (?) - because every performer has an individual "take" on a piece of music. I don't think that there is any right or wrong, black or white in classical music, it's all about varying shades of grey. Some may like a more intense reading of that Messiaen piece, others might prefer Rattle's more lyrical and breezy reading, and (hopefully?) many people can enjoy both. It's all about flexibility, not about getting the "right" performance. I sometimes read of people buying 20 different versions of the same piece to get the "definitive" interpretation. Well, here's news for them - NOTHING IS DEFINITIVE! It's all based on personal preference and judgement. I find it a waste of time to look around for the "perfect" performance. I'd rather engage actively with the work itself, whatever the style or content of the performance. I'm interested in the structure and content of the music, why it is the way it is, the composer's life, etc. I'd rather get down to the nitty gritty and bare bones of what I'm listening to rather than go off on tangents arguing about irrelevant subtleties.

    BTW, I think Naxos are a very good label, they have made world premiere recordings of many interesting pieces and composers, and yes, some of their recordings have also won coveted awards like the French Diapason D'Or...
    You can of course have 20 different interpretations of a piece, and they may well be all good performances. I think the OP is not suggesting that there should be no room for more adventurous interpretation, as long as it is obviously not a poor performance. Interpretation and quality of performance is not necessarily the same thing. An inexperienced conductor of a piece can make a dog's breakfast out of it, let alone offering his/her interpretation of it.

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    Senior Member Xaltotun's Avatar
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    I think that some posters have misunderstood what I was trying to say - I agree that my initial post was quite long, and English is after all a second language to me - but at least HarpsichordConcerto seems to "get" exactly what I was saying. I apologise if I have been unclear, it was not my intention.

    A better way of saying what I meant would perhaps be "There is no music unless there is a performance, so if you're judging music, you're judging a performance". Or "There is no music on the notes, only when someone's playing it". Or maybe just "Performances, and the overall conditions when you're hearing the music matter".

    Moreover, I'm defining "performance" in a very broad way for the purposes of this discussion: with it, I mean anything that affects the actual sound(waves) that reach the ears of the listener. Playing skill, creativity, passion, familiarity with the piece, conducting skills, quality and condition of instruments, acoustics, anything. And for records, some extra parameters: quality of the recording, quality of the amplifier and speakers, right volume level, room acoustics. Basically, I'm pitting "performance" against "notes" in a philosophical sense and comparing the two, and musing on what is it that we call "music" or "enjoyable music".

    I am NOT arguing that there should be only one definitive way to play a certain piece of music, quite the contrary! I am saying that it is really the performance that matters and really opens our ears to the music, if it is a good one. Thus, there can really be several different ways of playing a certain piece (at least in theory), and they all can be enjoyable - but it requires skill, creativity, practice and good conditions. On the same coin, there will be numerous differing ways of playing a piece of music perfectly dreadfully, or just flatly and spiritlessly. While I don't believe in the "one true way" of playing, at the same time I also suspect that sticking to the intentions of the composer and the conventions of his time will - usually - lead to better results rather than worse, and thus I have no trouble believing that the "H.I.P." performances mentioned by HarpsichordConcerto have opened the minds of several people to the music that they could not otherwise get into. That does not mean that no other good ways of playing those Handel operas exist, just that discovering those ways would require a LOT of effort and creativity.

    Also, what I'm NOT saying is "There is no good music, the quality of the music is subjective". That is a different topic entirely and a quite boring one, frankly. I am talking about something else entirely.

    Another thing that I'm NOT saying is "It's all about the quality of the performance, the quality of the music (the notes) means nothing". Yes, the notes mean a lot, I'm just promoting the other half of the equation, the performance, that sometimes to me seems underappreciated in its importance in making or breaking the music.

    Those things said, I still seem to disagree with Very Senior Member. To me, it does not have to be a disastrous performance to ruin a piece of music that I like very much into something that I like less than very much. A mediocre performance makes that piece mediocre. A flat performance makes that piece flat. And a powerful and spirited performance unleashes the power of the music (the notes themselves), makes the music fulfill its potential. It is here where those really good pieces of music shine (whether "good" is subjective or objective, let's leave that ambiguous and out of the discussion, shall we?). But what if the piece (the notes) was not originally very good? Then, I believe, that the superb performance WILL lift it up somewhat, however, not so much as to rival a superior performance of a superior piece.

    Personally I would much rather hear a good performance of a piece I'm not crazy about, than a mediocre performance of a piece that I love, even if there are no outright mistakes in the playing. Sometimes, hearing such a performance will even make me angry at the wasted and unused potential of the piece! And on the other hand, there's nothing like discovering something to like in something that you did not like that much before. It's soothing!

    And I'm adamant that at least to me, a bad performance by a record can be as disastrous as a blunder made when playing live.

    To Huilunsoittaja: yes, I'm a Finn, a member of the secret society that knows the meaning of your forum nickname! ,) I've seen your posts on this forum and it has been indeed my guess that you're an American with some Finnish roots. Greetings from an autumnal Helsinki! I suspect that you are a huilunsoittaja yourself?

    And finally on NAXOS: I'm still a a bit confused and undecided about the label. I have some of their records that I really like, and some that I wish I never bought. Guess it's a hit and miss thing.
    Last edited by Xaltotun; Oct-06-2010 at 13:32. Reason: spelling errors

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    Judging the quality of performances is a highly subjective matter.One person may love a particualr performance of a Beethoven symphony,and another may hate it.
    Which one is right? Much has to do with the performances or recordings one got to know a particualr work on. Often,we become impronted pn the first recording we hear of any particualr work, and when we hear different recordings, something seems wrong,or lacking in different ones.
    For example,if you get to know a Beethoven symphony on one particualr recording,when you hear another,the tempi may seem either too slow or too fast.
    But as I've gotten to hear many different recordings over many years,and I have a heck of a lot more experience listening to classical music than the person who started this thread,no offense meant, I've come to be tolerant of different tmpi and other interpretive approaches in different works.
    It's true;there is no such thing as a "definitive" performance of any masterpiece. No musician,even the composer,has a monopoly on the "right" way to interpret any given work.
    Composers have even been known to conduct or play their works differently on different occaisions.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Xaltotun View Post

    Personally I would much rather hear a good performance of a piece I'm not crazy about, than a mediocre performance of a piece that I love, even if there are no outright mistakes in the playing.
    I wouldn't bother listening to either.

    For sure, nothing would make me want to listen to a piece by, say,Stockhausen even if the plinky plonks were executed with utter perfection.

    Equally, I wouldn't like to listen to a mediocre performance of something I enjoy, when there is a far better version available.

    Further, as noted by others in this thread, there is no definitive performance of anything that would suit everyone. What might be interpreted by some as a "powerful and spirited performance" might be interpreted by others as "brash and insensitive.

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    Senior Member Sid James's Avatar
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    I agree with Xaltotun in his latest post. Music is definitely not only the notes on the page, it needs a performance to bring it to life. A work can exist in print form, but it needs a performance or a recording to make people aware of it (let's face it, most people don't have the ability to read orchestral scores, but anyone can watch a performance or listen to a recording). In a way, unlike the visual arts or literature, music is removed from the source of the score, as it has to be performed to be understood by most people. This is where individual interpretations come in, and they are all different and have their own uniqueness.

    I'm one of those people who, rather than having minor quibbles over this or that aspect of a recording, I just try to enjoy it as a whole (to get the "big picture.") Of course, if I was musically trained, that would be a different ball-game. Because I am not a musician, I am not too worried about even the most liberal interpretations. I remember seeing a documentary where the great Otto Klemperer was comparing himself to his contemporary Bruno Walter. Klemperer said "Bruno Walter is a moralist, while I am an immoralist." I think that this speaks loads of their differences of interpretation of the key classics, but no-one would doubt (despite these very marked differences) that both these men were among the greatest musicians of their time. Just like these guys, we have to give a chance for the musicians of our own time to put their own mark onto the music they are interpreting, we have to give them credit for knowing their art and dedicating their lives to this great profession...
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